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The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Dr Karamat Iqbal

The cost of educational underachievement

The benefits of receiving an education are matched only by the cost of not receiving one. Karamat Iqbal explains why underachievement is potentially life-changing. 

They say 'You don't know the value of something until it's gone', and education is no exception to this rule.

It is easy to say that education is a good thing. But why? Given that it is almost universally available and has been so for some time, its value has never come under much scrutiny.

Until three years ago, I had never given a second thought to my ability to go to the toilet or walk. Why would I? Such bodily functions are normal, aren’t they?

Well they are, unless something goes wrong, which is exactly what happened. Now that I am back to ‘normal’ I am conscious of them more than ever before and thankful to God for being so blessed.

Similarly, if we imagined a world without education, we would come to realise its worth and be conscious how it benefits us, individually and as a society.

A wise investment

Let’s not forget that there are many places where universal education, of the type and extent that we in the developed world take for granted, is not available. In those parts of the world people are much more conscious of its potential and benefits.

In such situations when the secretary-general of the United Nations says that ‘(with) wise investment in education, we can transform individual lives, national economies and our world’, we know it means something.

Better livelihood

The potential of education to enable higher earning and better livelihoods, and to prevent the inheritance of poverty from one generation to the next, is not just true in the poorer countries.

We too can appreciate the wider benefits of education, which go beyond the purely economic – health, wellbeing, social cohesion and community participation. It has been shown that higher levels of educational attainment are likely to lead to higher levels of life satisfaction and better mental health. 

The opposite is equally true.

Educational underachievement can arise in a number of ways such as poor school leaving qualifications, drop out from further education or failure to access higher education. Just as education can benefit us, the absence of education can bring with it a number of costs.

As well as individual level costs, there can be wider costs at community or society level. The families of those who do not or are slow to reach their educational potential are more likely to be dependent on welfare benefits for a much longer period of time. There are resource or opportunity costs such as poor workforce skills and loss of taxation income.

Vicious circle

Educational underachievement can be the cause of a particular life trajectory, such as being a NEET (not in education, employment or training upon leaving school).

Such a person can have a higher propensity to substance abuse than other young people and more likely to drink alcohol, smoke and take illegal drugs, all of which can have an impact on their lives.

As well as incurring social services costs, unemployed young people are more likely than others to be involved with crime. The ‘vicious circle’ for such a person can mean greater difficulty in obtaining or holding down a job. The public finance costs of crime relate to police and criminal justice system costs. It has been estimated that the first year in prison for an individual can cost society as much as £105,000.

Lisa’s story

With the help of hypothetical case studies from a Department for Education report we can see the type of life trajectory for young people who underachieve at school. The financial cost can accumulate to a large sum indeed over their life course.

Based on 2002 figures, for Lisa, the costs were £314,387. She had left school with no qualifications. Soon after, she moved in with her boyfriend in a council flat. She became a teenage mum, and then a single parent after splitting up from her boyfriend. She struggled with substance and alcohol abuse which continued throughout her life.

Lisa occasionally enrolled on further education but then dropped out. She had a few periods in low paid and unskilled jobs. She suffered from ill health, including chronic conditions. She died at the age of 77.

The challenge ahead

In my recently completed doctoral research in Birmingham, I showed that over a ten-year period some ten thousand Pakistani young people underachieved at school. It is worth reflecting on the long-term implications this will have. How many of them will become NEETs or become involved in anti-social behaviour? 

Muslims currently represent 4 per cent of the general population but 15.2 per cent of the prison population. How many more will be added to as a consequence of educational underachievement? What can we do as a system or society so to meet the challenge through education, so we can transform individual lives, national economies and our world altogether?

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